Monday, January 12, 2009

Shocker: No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989)

No more Mr. Clea-ea-ea-ea-ea-aaachoo.

With the recent release of the trailer for the Last House on the Left remake, it seems like as good a time as any to go over the works of horror-director and New Age weirdo: Wes Craven. (Seriously, watch interviews of him when he discusses "spirituality." Total nutter.)

Mr. Craven has one of the most illustrious careers in horror cinema. He practically invented the modern splatter film with his early work in the '70s, he created one of horror's most enduring and recognizable icons in Nightmare on Elmstreet's Freddy Krueger, and even reinvented/reinvigorated/ruined (depending on who you ask) the slasher with Scream.

In the late '80s, Craven was riding high on Nightmare's success, but despite helping write the second sequel, he felt that New Line Cinema wasn't giving him enough scratch. Obviously, the time was right for a new franchise. The magically powered, non-corporeal, super slasher bit had worked like gangbusters for Krueger, so Craven must have been hoping that lightning would strike twice with his new series: Shocker. (Pun extra intended.)
The movie begins with some good old cathode-ray-tube stock footage footage, and the cleverly titled, brain-rocking original song, "Shocker", by The Dudes of Wrath, an '80s metal super-group. A convenient newscast explains that a serial murderer is terrorizing the town by murdering entire families. All that is known is that he is "male and savagely powerful." Craven's masterstroke is that by making the boob-tube his anchor motif for the film, he can get away with the most obvious and clumsy exposition by hiding it in the many Greek choruses newscasts sprinkled throughout.
Meanwhile, high school football star Jonathan Parker (the acting debut of Hancock director, Peter Berg) gets a concussion during practice; ostensibly because he is distracted by the sight of his hot girlfriend, but most likely to avoid running into the Steadicam operator or 1st AC.
The head injury results in some Nightmare-esque dream sequences about the killer, who is soon revealed to be limping TV repair man, Horace Pinker (the X-Files' Mitch Pileggi). Jonathan's father is the lead detective on the case, resulting in Pinker murdering their entire family, as well as John's girlfriend. John uses his newfound psychic gifts to lead his father to the killer's lair, and eventually to catching him in the middle of one of his trademark home invasions.
After some 4th Amendment violations, a surprisingly Mirror's Edge like rooftop chase and the world's fastest capital punishment trial, Pinker is ready for the electric chair. Megadeth mangles Alice Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy," while the guards comment on Pinker's last request: a TV set, which he promptly uses to contact Satan and/or the gods of electricity. (How he got a Satanic Bible, candles, and a set of jumper cables, will forever remain a mystery.) As Pinker ritualistically electrocutes himself, giant Rolling Stones lips burst from the TV and proclaim "You got it, Baaaby," which I guess means his plan worked.
The guards resuscitate Pinker so that he can be alive and well for his imminent death, which naturally doesn't go as planned. First he reveals that he is Jonathan's abusive biological father, then he transforms into a body jumping being of pure energy instead of dying. Unfortunately, Craven seems to believe that their blood relation is enough explanation for Johnathan's precognitive psychic link, as now that Pinker has escaped his mortal body, they never ever mention it again. Also notable in the massive-leaps-of-logic category, is that Pinker's trademark overdone limp follows him through the electrical spirit world to manifest itself in all of his hosts.
Note: Next time I threaten to injure one of my co-workers, I'm going to say something along the lines of, "I'm gonna hit you so hard your immortal soul will get bruised, so when you are put in the electric chair after making a deal with the devil and escape from your body into a state of pure energy that can possess and control others, your host bodies will have black eyes too. Yeah. So there."
After an afternoon of Jason Goes to Hell/The Hidden/Fallen style body swapping mayhem at the park (the highlight of which is a bulldozer riding, 8-year-old girl with the mouth of a sailor) Jonathan teams up with his football buddies, Ted Raimi, and the spirit of his dead girlfriend to take Pinker down. Unfortunately, the football guys can't come up with a more advanced plan than "break the sucker's neck."
Pinker takes control of the neck breakage obsessed coach, who had been sent on a videogame style fetch quest to get some snorkeling equipment, and kills Ted Raimi before being forced out with the help of some soul-battle coaching from Jonathan. (Despite the brilliant line "I eat this wimp's willpower for breakfast, John-Bo.") Now reduced to a cheesy video effect, he attempts to jump into Jonathan's body as a last resort. Luckily, John's dead girlfriend shows up with the Care Bear Stare, forcing him to escape into a wall outlet.

The natural assumption at this point in the movie is that Pinker will start attacking via toasters and curling irons, but he quickly returns to form by jumping into Jonathan's dad, who was attempting to turn on a light. He then chases John up a giant TV antenna, only to escape into the airwaves and resume his murderous rampage as a magic TV ghost. (Hopefully the DTV transition will prevent this from ever happening in real life.) Of course, since the movie has already past the 90 minute mark and had a tense rooftop climax, all the killing happens off camera and is merely related to us by (you guessed it) a TV newscast.
The stage is now set for the final confrontation, as Jonathan sets up a brilliant plan to chase his father through television itself, in order to force him into the real world where he can be hurt. (Sound familiar?) The battle rages across World War 2 documentaries, Leave it to Beaver, Alice Cooper videos, boxing matches, and news reports. After atomic blast footage knocks them into some fat people's living room, the movie finally crosses the line from "goofy" to "bat-shit insane." How Jonathan, who remains a flesh and blood person, is able to follow his father into the TV world is, once again, not explained. The illogic culminates with Jonathan torturing Pinker with a magic remote control and fleeing back into his room through the lens of a TV camera while his buddies destroy the town's power supply. (As Red Dawn taught us, high school football teams are always excellent at guerrilla warfare tactics.)

I don't get it. Was Pinker's deal with TV Satan to make him an immortal energy being, or to replace the laws of physics with cartoon rules, ala Paprika?

Shocker is an interesting bird none the less. The soundtrack rules, and it certainly makes a good case for the criminal under use of Mitch Pileggi. Aside from X-Files, all I can remember seeing him in was an insurance commercial I once saw where he was petting a dog. Perhaps it's just bald-guy solidarity. (We frequently have to band together to defeat evil leagues of eugenicists.)On the other hand, the film's foibles are legion. It's too long, it's poorly paced, it's not even a tiny bit scary, and it makes fuck-all sense 99% of the time. It doesn't even have any memorable deaths. All of this can be traced back to Shocker's older, more successful sibling, Elmstreet, the movie that it desperately wants to be.

Craven's biggest mistake was in trying to create a franchise rather than a movie. We all know how successful sequels have been with our fadish, sheeplike movie-going public. After all, Elmstreet, alone wrangled six follow ups, a crossover with Friday the 13th, a TV series, and a small landfill's worth in merchandising. Despite all that, Craven made the first Freddy Krueger movie to stand alone: Freddy makes some sweet kills, the heroine uncovers what he is and the terrible secret of his backstory, and she has a "final girl" showdown with him. It's not Citizen Kane, but it was effective for the time and launched the above mentioned ultra-franchise. Shocker, by contrast, wastes a great deal of time doubling as Horace Pinker's origin story. He's a mere mortal for the entire first act, and the movie spends most of the rest of its running time setting up his countless powers and establishing vague rules, with the tacit promise that he would be returning in numerous sequels to actually do memorable things with said powers.
I feel like I'm being too hard on the film; demanding that it follow the stale, rigid structure of the slasher when all it wants to do is give Timothy Leary cameos and play by its own rules. I guess I am, but it is only because Shocker shows so much promise: good music, decent acting, and a premise just brimming with possibilities. Also, if you can look beyond the total illogic of the final battle, it is undeniably awesome in both concept and execution. If they would have opened the movie with Pinker's execution, reduced the amount of body jumping in favor of Pinker attacking with appliances or other electrical powers, and come up with some sort of explanation for how the hero can also travel into the TV set (other than "because we did something similar in Nightmare on Elmstreet and his dead girlfriend gave him a magic necklace that hurts the villain for some reason") Shocker could have been really, really awesome. (While we're at it, just drop the ghost girlfriend, or ggf, altogether.)

More science, less mysticism, Wes. Go read Elegant Universe, then write me another "Like Freddy, only with less magic" movie. Just don't get your hopes up about a sequel.

-KnarfPS. Rumor has it that Shocker will be remade in the near future, with Henry Rollins as the titular villain. That is just crazy enough to work.


  1. Is it a coincidence that 2 years after Shocker came to the silver screen, Koji Sukuzi penned his infamous novel, entitled simply "Ring".

    Yes, yes it is.

    But the movie certainly shows how to make television scary. And you don't really understand the motives, the back story or even the "rules" of the killer until the movie is practically over.

    The Shocker is one of those movies I always walked past at the Mr. Movies. The cover art was interesting, but I just didn't get around to seeing it for whatever reason.

    Much like Creature, Lifeforce, Troll and most of the Leprechaun movies (caught the first one, unfortunately).

    Have you seen "Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe" yet? I have head tales of this movie, but never seen it in the flesh.

  2. The changes you suggest be made to Shocker seem simply to constitute an entirely new movie, which is not a bad thing. No, you were NOT being too hard on this film.

  3. Hahahaha this is a good read. But like Ebert's review of Armageddon, the things you dislike (making no sense, for example) are the exact things that make me love it, making this the rare type of review where I agree with every word but not the overall opinion. One quibble tho - it's not Iron Maiden, but Megadeth doing the No More Mr Nice Guy cover. If Maiden did it, the film would be in the Smithsonian for sure.

  4. D'oh! Good eye.

    Thanks to a combination of legitimate talent and a total lack of common sense, it is still far more watchable that legions of other b-movies.